Film Fest

A Cry for Justice

A documentary at the Milwaukee Film Festival is a haunting look at a priest who abused deaf boys in this archdiocese.

By - Oct 4th, 2012 09:55 am
Mea Maxima Culpa

Mea Maxima Culpa

What does it take for a deaf man to be heard? That’s the question asked by the documentary film “Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God,” which will be shown by the Milwaukee Film Festival Friday night.

Long before the waves of the Catholic Church’s child sex abuse scandal surged across America, three young men, molested as children at the St. John’s School for the Deaf in St. Francis, tried to tell their stories and stop one of the Milwaukee Archdiocese’s most prolific — and horrifying — pedophiles.

The deaf men — Gary Smith, Bob Bolger and Art Budzinski — would not accept defeat. They began their battle in 1974, launching their first organized protest a decade before the case of an abusive priest in Louisiana, Gilbert Gauthe, which was the first to make headlines across the country.

The three deaf men went to the archbishop. They went to the police. They went to the media. They went to court. They even went to the public with crude mimeographed “wanted” posters of their abuser, Father Lawrence Murphy. Finally, they went to the Vatican.

Their cries for justice fell on deaf ears until 2003, when the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel finally told their story. The old Milwaukee Journal had an on-again, off-again attitude toward reporting the larger story of abuse in the church, publishing some early stories in the 1980s and 1990s, only to back off in 1995 when the paper merged with the Milwaukee Sentinel. It was only after the Boston Globe waged a relentless fight in 2002 to uncover pedophile priest secrets that the Milwaukee newspaper renewed its interest in the story.

The story of St. John’s is the touchstone used by award-winning documentarian Alex Gibney to expose the larger scandal that has engulfed the church worldwide. What made Milwaukee different was the persistence of the deaf men who shouted for decades while no one listened.

Gibney traces the responsibility for the sordid affair to the very top, the office of Pope Benedict XVI who, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, ordered that all of the priest abuse allegations from around the world be handled by his office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. That office, Gibney reminds us, was once known as the office of the Inquisition.

Gibney lays out his case with one fact after another, clearly and without insulting the viewer’s intelligence, and the details mount to create a damning story.

A few heroes emerge, including a Chicago priest who tried to blow the whistle on Murphy in the 1950 but was largely ignored; Father Thomas Doyle, a one-time top church lawyer who warned the American bishops that the scandal would cost more than $1 billion (it’s up to $2 billion now) and who is now working for the victims; Richard Sipe, a former priest and expert on sexual and celibacy issues; and Patrick Wall, a former Benedictine priest who had been sent in to parishes to clean up after pedophilia scandals.

But former Archbishop Rembert Weakland is also portrayed as heroic, which some Catholics here may see as misleading. Weakland tells Gibney he tried to get the Vatican to defrock Murphy but was thwarted by his superiors. Because some of the abuse occurred in the confessional, Weakland thought he could get the Vatican to act.

But in the years before he acted in 1998, Weakland had psychological reports characterizing Murphy as an untreatable pedophile. Weakland knew that Murphy was working as a priest in Superior and did nothing to warn the parish, the police or anyone else. It was the threat of a lawsuit that appeared to force Weakland to act. Even after Murphy’s death, Weakland wrote to a nun that he was trying to keep the Murphy case out of the press to protect the priest’s “good name.” None of this was included in the film.

The film notes that Weakland retired after reports he had paid a former gay lover for his silence but the emphasis is on Weakland’s sexuality. Most Milwaukee Catholics seemed more upset that the archbishop used church money to cover up the problem and protect his good name.

Weakland, Gibney notes, once was looked on by many American Catholics as a reformer, one who would bring about the true nature of “church.” Gibney seems to be saying that Weakland courageously fought the power structure and lost. But the evidence omitted by the film suggests the archbishop knew about the misconduct but acted only when it was clear the story was about to get a great deal of publicity. By contrast, the other priests portrayed positively in the documentary joined forces with the victims, publicly calling the church to task not only for the abuse but for the cover up.

Weakland’s protection of predator priests, his pattern of moving priests from one parish to another when misdeeds were discovered, his indifference to the victims – he even threatened some in other cases – ultimately helped keep the abuse within the church secret.

The film is quite tough on other leaders: there are damning clips of then-Cardinal Ratzinger and Archbishop Timothy Dolan defending themselves.

Gibney does a superb job of taking the viewers back to the school in the 1960s, opening the film with clips from a video of happy children in a classroom, innocent and eager to learn under the kindly eye of a nun in a full habit. One of the deaf men signs about how happy he was at first attending the school with its leafy campus and so many other deaf children. “I felt like we were in heaven.”

Purists may object to Gibney’s recreation of scenes at the school — an actor portraying Murphy in the confessional or strolling through a boys dorm, a room crowded with cots where some of the abuse occurred. But they feel honest and take the viewer to the haunting places where so much abuse took place. Whatever its flaws, the film has a powerful message about the difficulty of confronting respected institutions and leaders that refuse to listen.

The release of the film comes at an interesting time. The Milwaukee Archdiocese filed for bankruptcy in 2011, citing the large number of claims – 570 – brought by victims of abuse. A federal judge ordered all parties to mediate the dispute. The October 2 deadline for resolving the issue has been extended 10 days but it appears that the court battle will continue.

Budzinski and Smith are among those who filed claims. Their friend, Bob Bolger, died before getting his day in court.

The film, done for HBO, will premiere on 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 5, at the Oriental Theatre. Gibney, who has won an Oscar, an Emmy, a Peabody and a Grammy for his earlier work, will be present at the showing.

Writer Marie Rohde was the religion reporter for many years for the Milwaukee Journal and has written extensively about the clergy abuse scandal.


2 thoughts on “Film Fest: A Cry for Justice”

  1. DPierre says:

    But can the FACTS in ‘Mea Maxima Culpa’ be trusted?!?!?
    There is another side to this film:

  2. Alex Gibney says:

    I am the director of the film that Marie Rohde writes about.

    First let me say that I am delighted by Ms. Rohde’s textured and insightful review.

    However, I must respond to a number of comments made in regard to the film’s treatment of Archbishop Weakland. Normally, I would not do so, but Weakland is a controversial figure here in Milwaukee, and Ms. Rohde seems to have singled out a small portion of the film in a way that is inaccurate.

    First of all, Ms. Rohde says that the film portrays Weakland as “heroic.” I disagree. I present Archbishop Weakland as a flawed character who nevertheless reveals much about the church, the way institutions protect themselves and how, nevertheless, imperfect people can be roused by their conscience – or even their sense of political expediency – to try to do the right thing. In Weakland’s case, he tried – as no other cleric did – to push for the canonical trial of Father Lawrence Murphy. In so doing, archbishop Weakland has given us all great insight into the way the Catholic Church operates. To hear Rome tell the story (and Ms. Rohde seems inclined toward the church’s view) bishops are on their own. But the tale of Weakland in the Murphy case offers powerful evidence that the Vatican is the puppet master for all the clerics in the system. That is why the Weakland story is important to this film, even though it represents a very small portion of the narrative.

    Ms. Rohde criticizes the film for covering up Weakland’s most public scandal – the payment of $450,000 church funds to silence a former gay lover. That is inaccurate. The film clearly indicates – through the voice of Robert Mickens, a correspondent for The Tablet – that “the problem was the payoff.” However, the film also debunks reckless accusations that his homosexual affair was pedophilia. It was not. He had a consensual relationship with another adult male.

    Ms. Rohde claims that the film says that Weakland “courageously fought the power structure and lost.” This is also misleading. The film quotes the powerful local voice of SNAP, Peter Isely, who says, “Weakland inherited Murphy in 1976. And all through the ’70s and through the ’80s, and up until that letter, Archbishop Weakland does absolutely nothing with him. Not a thing.” The inclusion of that quote very clearly showcases anger toward Weakland’s inaction.

    At the same time, Ms Rohde asserts that Weakland was “indifferent” to the victims of abuses if that were an unassailable and unmitigated fact. Again, I must disagree. I have spoken to survivors who view Weakland in a positive light because he helped them in ways that they continue to value. That doesn’t mean that he may have failed others. But in the Murphy case, he tried to do something, which set him apart.

    It is true that the film doesn’t delve into the full story of Archbishop Weakland – either his failings or his successes. The film restricts its gaze to Archbishop Weakland’s role in the Murphy story. Even in that context, much of that story is told in shorthand. For those interested in a more complete look at Weakland’s role, it is instructive to examine the documents on this case collected by Those documents show both sides of Weakland – his attempts to find a way to control Murphy and protect victims from him; and some appalling letters that seem to put the avoidance of scandal above all other concerns. (One refers to his attempts – after Murphy’s death – to try to “protect the good name of Father Murphy.”)

    Ms Rohde notes that the film failed to note that it was the threat of a lawsuit that forced Weakland to act. I would like to know which one. In the correspondence on the case, Weakland does note the threat of a lawsuit but it’s in 1974, two years before he arrived in Milwaukee. It was the threat of that 1974 lawsuit which forced Murphy to resign from his post at St. John’s school for the deaf and to leave Milwaukee for Boulder Junction in Northern Wisconsin.

    One other small note. Ms. Rohde seems to suggest that Weakland’s engagement of a therapist to examine Father Murphy was problemmatic in some way. Yet in the absence of any real efforts by local law enforcement to stop Murphy’s crime spree, the hiring of that therapist contributed important evidence. Through the therapist’s notes we discovered the extent of Murphy’s crimes and gained powerful insights into the terrifying rationalizations of a criminal pedophile like Murphy.

    There are other issues of course. What was the role that Bishop Fliss played in the diocese of Superior, where Murphy lived from 1974 on? What are we to learn from the veiled references between Fliss and Weakland where Weakland made it clear that Murphy should not return to Milwaukee to “minister to the deaf,” as was Murphy’s desire? This level of detail was beyond the scope of the film which included not only the Murphy case but lengthy sequences on sex abuse in Ireland and the Vatican’s role. This will have to await the writing of a book, perhaps by Ms. Rohde, or Peter Isely, both of whom have much to say on this matter.

    I don’t make films that seek to assign white hats and black hats to human beings who live in a world of gray. I’m more interested in holding institutions to account. To caricature individuals as monsters is to let institutions off the hook by suggesting that the problem is one of a “few bad apples.” “Mea Maxima Culpa” is a film about the abuse of power. A careful look at power reveals that individuals derive their power from institutions, which is where the problem lies.

    That said, I do agree with Ms Rohde that the real heroes of this film are the deaf men who were determined to have their voices heard and to demand a reckoning. What is remarkable about their story – and what led me to it – is their struggle to make a difference. They are everyday heroes who are inspiring because in the struggle for justice, they are just a little bit better than most of us. Their example gives us all something to strive for.

    As a filmmaker, I must also say that their eloquence, in their hands and faces, contains a dramatic power that every director dreams of capturing on camera.

    I apologize for focusing on a small portion of Ms. Rohde’s review. I am grateful for her kind remarks elsewhere in her piece.

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